A Formula for Healthy, Easy School Lunches
“Simple school lunches” may sound like an oxymoron, but our school lunch formula for a bento box lunch for kids might just change your mind! Best of all? These packed lunch ideas are endlessly customizable!
Imagine being able to throw together a school lunch in 10 seconds flat. Whether you’re off to the office or working from home, whether your kids are heading into the classroom or distance learning right beside you, wouldn’t that make weekday mornings a little more manageable?
For most parents, packing lunch that quickly sounds too good to be true. But with a little bit of advance planning and an easy-to-follow formula, it’s very possible. In fact, this formula is so easy you can stick it up on the fridge and let your kids choose their own lunches!
Even for kids learning from home, there are big benefits to prepping lunches in advance. For one, it helps maintain the sense of normalcy many kids are craving with the stop-and-start nature of back-to-school plans this year. For another, you don’t have to stop your workday to make them lunch — they can simply eat when they’re hungry, which makes the day smoother for everyone.
Are you sold yet?
The formula goes like this:
Main Course + Vegetable + Fruit + Snack or Dessert
School lunches don’t have to be complicated, and they don’t have to be gourmet meals where every item goes together perfectly. Prep a few options for each category, and you can simply mix and match at whim. And if you prep a few packs of utensils and napkins in advance too, lunches will be even easier.
We recommend one of these two methods:
- Dedicate a section of your fridge and pantry to school lunches, divided by category and clearly labeled for grab-and-go ease. Clear dividers or lidless boxes can help keep your categories separate. Then make sure to keep at least one option in each category.
- Buy kid-friendly bento boxes that you fill the same way each day (for instance, fruit on the top left and veggie on the top right) so it’s easy to remember what you still need to add.
Now, read on for our best ideas for what to pack in each category!
Choose a main course that contains some protein, but no need to overthink it! Pack what your kids like, which for most kids means keep it simple. Any of these main courses can be prepped up to 3 days in advance.
Some ideas for main courses that can be eaten cold include:
- PB&J (or use almond butter, sunflower seed butter, or some other type of nut or seed butter that fits your child’s school’s allergy requirements)
- Turkey roll-up
- Hummus wrap
- Ham sandwich
- Pasta salad with cheese
- Egg salad sandwich
- Tuna salad sandwich
- Black bean salad
If your child will have lunchtime access to a microwave or doesn’t mind eating normally hot foods cold, the following dishes can be treated the same way as the above. If, on the other hand, they prefer to eat these foods hot and won’t be able to reheat them, you’ll need to take the additional step of reheating them in the microwave in the morning, then popping them into a thermos or other insulated container.
- Pizza or calzone
- Couscous with chickpeas
- Quiche or frittata
- Fried rice
- Leftovers from dinner
Alternately, you can add a protein and carb (especially grains) that aren’t integrated into the same dish. This works well for picky eaters who don’t like their foods mingling — or for the times when you’re low on groceries! Some examples include:
- A yogurt cup and overnight oats
- Hummus and pita slices
- Edamame and rice balls
- String cheese and roasted sweet potato slices
- A beef jerky stick and whole-grain crackers
- Bean dip and tortilla chips
- Nut butter and pretzels
- Sliced cheese and rice crackers
- A hard-boiled egg and an English muffin
- Crispy chickpeas and tortillas
The best vegetables for school lunches are easy to eat and taste good cool or at room temperature. Raw veggie strips are the easiest option, and work especially well if you’re also sending hummus, nut butter, or a dip to make the veggies more fun.
Feel free to skip the vegetable if your main incorporates a veggie serving, such as pasta salad with cherry tomatoes, fried rice with peas and carrots, a frittata with onion and kale, or a sandwich with spinach and cucumbers).
Some of our favorite raw veggie ideas include:
- Bell pepper strips
- Baby carrots
- Cucumber slices
- Jicama slices
- Cherry tomatoes
- Celery sticks
- Green beans
- Snow peas or snap peas
- Raw broccoli
- Raw cauliflower
- A simple green salad (pack the dressing separately in an easy-to-open container or the sauce / dip section of a bento box)
Another option is to send any leftover sautés, stir-fries, salads, or roasted veggies you may have made for dinner the night before, but keep in mind most kids won’t have access to a microwave to reheat those leftovers.
Root vegetables, such as roasted butternut squash, sweet potato, or carrots, travel particularly well. Cooked cruciferous vegetables, on the other hand, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, begin to smell unpleasant as leftovers due to the sulphur compounds they contain, so they’re not ideal choices for school lunches.
It helps to pre-slice or cube fruit to make it easier to eat. For juicier fruits in particular, such as watermelon and ripe peaches, be sure the compartment or container you put it in seals completely to avoid a sticky mess in the lunchbox.
Here are some of our favorite lunchtime fruits:
- Apples, sliced (squeeze some lemon juice on the slices and then hold them together with a rubber band to keep them from going brown)
- Oranges, sliced into smiles
- Mandarins, peeled
- Nectarines, sliced
- Peaches, sliced
- Pineapple, cubed
- Watermelon, cubed
- Bananas, not overly ripe (if you have a hard-sided container they can go in to avoid getting squished)
- Kiwifruit, sliced or halved with a spoon for scooping
Snack or Dessert
Finally, add a fun extra to round out the meal! This usually means something crunchy, especially if you stuck to more traditional main courses, such as sandwiches or wraps. Alternately, add a sweet treat!
Some good options for savory snacks include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Cashews, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, or pecans
- Tortilla chips
- Graham crackers
- Seaweed snacks
- Chex mix
- Sesame sticks
Some ideas for small desserts include:
- A few Oreos
- A chocolate chip cookie
- A muffin
- Nutella toast
- Chocolate-covered almonds
- Chocolate-covered pretzels
- Trail mix that includes chocolate or white chocolate chips
- Jordan almonds
- Dried cranberries
- Dried apricots
- Freeze-dried fruit
- Honey-sweetened seed or nut balls
Finally, add a thermos of water, a fork and / or spoon, a napkin, and an ice pack to keep everything cool. And you’re done!
For more tips on how to pack great school lunches, check out these posts from parents in our cooking community – 5 Tips for School Lunches Your Kids Will Actually Eat and How to Simplify School Lunches. And for more easy ways to make sack lunches a little more fun, watch how we put together a bento box lunch for kids.
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